Maybe this is a pointless question, but why did Jesus wait three days to rise from the dead?
I mean, once He died, He had fully paid the penalty for the sins of all mankind. Why couldn’t He just resurrect right there, jump down from the cross, dust himself off, and call it good?
Maybe he needed to be buried in the grave. Fine. But why wait three days for the resurrection? Why not get wrapped in burial clothes, then rise sometime during that first night?
Here are some possible reasons, but honestly, I find none of them satisfactory.
To prove He was dead
I suppose some could argue that He had to stay in the tomb for three days to prove He was dead. There is, after all, the “swoon theory” in which people say Jesus didn’t really die, but just went unconscious. I suppose if Jesus “resurrected” two minutes after dying on the cross, this theory would be much more plausible. But when Jesus is buried in tomb for three days, this theory loses all credibility.
But at the same time, this still doesn’t answer the question. If Jesus wanted to prove He was dead, why not wait seven days? Or thirty? I suppose these longer periods can be disregarded because God did not want Jesus to see decay (Ps 16:10; Acts 2:27). But even in three days the body of Jesus would have started to decay.
To fulfill prophecy
Some say that Jesus had to spend three days in the grave to fulfill prophecy. Which prophecy? The sign of Jonah, who spent three days in the belly of a great fish (cf. Matt 12:39-40). But we must be careful here because the story of Jonah is not really a prophecy. Yes, Jesus prophesied that He would be in the grave for three days, just like Jonah was in the fish for three days, but if Jesus had never said this, then there would be no such thing as a prophecy about spending three days in the grave.
So this answer just kicks the question back a little further: Why three days? Why couldn’t Jesus have connected His death with the creation of the world, and said a prophecy about how “Just as the world was created in six days, and on the sixth day, Adam was raised from the dust of the ground, so also, after six days the Son of Man also will rise from the dust”? Jesus could have taken any number of stories and accounts in the Bible and turned them into a prophecy about how long He would be in the tomb. Why did He pick the story of Jonah? What is special about three days?
To increase faith
Another possible explanation is that Jesus wanted to increase the faith of His followers. By not resurrecting right away, they had to question why they had followed Him, and whether He was truly the Messiah. They had to work through the despair of losing Him, and the questions of what would have happened if they had not followed Him, or if they had defended Him better, or if they had simply been duped.
By waiting three days, Jesus allowed them time to work through some of these issues and questions. But again, this begs the question. If three days does this, why not seven, or twelve, or forty, all of which are also significant biblical numbers.
Could not rise during the Sabbath
It could be argued that resurrection is work, and so Jesus could not rise on the Sabbath, but had to wait until the Sabbath was over. This argument actually has some merit. But Jesus was always doing things on the Sabbath that other Jewish people frowned upon, including healing on the Sabbath.
Acting as our High Priest
Maybe Jesus was busy “doing stuff” in paradise, hell, and heaven. You know, High Priestly stuff like sprinkling blood on the altar in heaven, defeating sin, death, and the devil, preaching to spirits in prison, that sort of thing (Heb 9; 1 Pet 3:19).
I suppose this is possible. It just doesn’t really explain why these things took three days.
It doesn’t matter
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it was all just random. Maybe Jesus picked a number out of the air, and selected Jonah as a way of making a prophecy about it to prove that He could predict the future, which would then prove that He was a prophet of God when the prophecy came true. But the number of days in the grave is irrelevant. It just happens to be what Jesus chose.
I just struggle with this because the biblical authors seem to place such an emphasis on three days in the grave.
But in the end, I have no answer.
The important thing is that Jesus rose
We can all agree here. Maybe questioning why Jesus spent three days in the grave is a pointless question which only theologians ask. The important thing is that Jesus rose from the dead, and for this, we can praise and thank God for all eternity.
Here are other posts in this series on the death and resurrection of Jesus.